The ancient Filipino sport that time almost forgot

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In the Philippines, a growing group of enthusiasts keeps arm wrestling alive in an era that may have forgotten the values of the ancient, intimate sport. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The lights glow green, red, and yellow in El Guapo’s in Kapitolyo, one Saturday night when it played host to a cluster of men gathered around a narrow yellow table, where two able-bodied competitors — Joey and Sed — are locked in an apparent gesture of fraternal devotion, their hands gripped tight in an almost-embrace.

Fingers interlocked, elbows supported by the surface, their faces are inches away from each other, though their eyes may not meet. There is some kind of intimacy in the way Joey and Sed’s hands form a conjoined fist, as to resemble a fulcrum to which the energies of their bodies flow. There is some sort of tension, an erratic rhythm of barely repressed groans, until that moment one overcomes and pulls down the other. In a few seconds, you realize this stage is not set for a union.

It’s set for a collision.

In the world of arm wrestling, each match is essentially a stationary race, a fascinating spectacle where fingers clasp, slip, and sometimes lose their hold in the struggle to pull the other to the pin. Blink, and you might miss it. There is a restrained beauty, and also a violent grace, in the way each glorious battle ends almost as swiftly as it begins.

***

“We’re known as world leaders in the sport of bodybuilding,” says Lee Soriano, managing director of Armwrestling Philippines, a growing group of enthusiasts that engage in the sport and promote fitness and athleticism through arm wrestling.

The impetus for forming the group stemmed from Soriano’s early frustrations about the lack of proper support for bodybuilders who spend time, effort, and money in training, but get paltry rewards in exchange for the high cost of their preparations. “So dinadaan [nila] sa maraming competitions, and this is where they fall victim to a lot of unscrupulous promoters,” he says. “In some cases, the prized money, ‘di binibigay, you don’t hear from the promoters ever again.”

armwrestling1.jpg In the world of arm wrestling, each match is essentially a stationary race, a fascinating spectacle where fingers clasp, slip, and sometimes lose their hold in the struggle to pull the other to the pin. Photo by JL JAVIER

Seeking to change this, Soriano became part of a group called Unified, which was supposed to bring together a federation of athletes and help them, among others, by spreading awareness and correcting misconceptions about bodybuilding. “They are not freaks of nature, they’re people, they work hard,” he says. “Back then, the perception was, ‘pag malaki ‘yung katawan mo, it’s not normal … but we were able to soften the image. We wanted to show them that these guys were able to achieve a certain level of perfection.”

For the public to understand bodybuilding, as well as other underrated Philippine sports, became the more urgent goal. After going into women’s sports, Soriano then became interested in arm wrestling around three to four years ago.

“At that time, the arm wrestling community would often meet in the house of our number one arm wrestler, Mark Ben,” he says. “I told him, ‘Mark, you have to bring this to the public, let them see what’s going on,’ … pabiro nga, sabi ko, ‘Mark, maawa ka naman sa nanay mo, every time you practice, your mom has to cook for 40 people,’’ he laughs.

In 2016, Mark Luis Ben competed in the Arnold Classic Arm Wrestling Championship in Hong Kong — named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor-slash-bodybuilding advocate — and won the bronze medal in the 80-kilogram category, achieving the feat for the first time for a Filipino. Competitors participate by invitation only. “When you’re accepted to compete in the Arnold’s, that’s recognition already,” Soriano says.

“We don’t have a ranking system in the Philippines, so [they get] kung sino 'yung nag-cha-champion sa nationals,” adds Ben. For his part, Ben says he was invited because he competes internationally. He has participated in other arm wrestling tournaments abroad, including the Super Armwrestling League (SAL) in China, and the second Silvis Armwrestling Championship in South Korea, where he won the gold medal in his category.

“The guy who ends up winning most of the tournaments, nakikila iyan,” says Soriano.

armwrestling2.jpg A referee, who is trained to spot danger situations in matches, instructs arm wrestlers the proper way to grip each other's fingers before a match. Photo by JL JAVIER

***

It may have been a balmy, nondescript day in the 1940s when national artist Vicente Silva Manansala decided to paint two Filipino men caught in a deadlock, gripping each other’s wrists atop a table while another closely observed their struggle.

The cubist painting, titled “Arm Wrestling,” has been sold for USD 319,994 (₱14,890,386) by the auction house Sothebys Hong Kong. It depicts the sport in a familiar Filipino environment, a peek into the social practices Manansala observed during his time apart from the usual “picturesque or traditional representation of rural existence.”

Yet it seems the roots of arm wrestling go even further in time and place, and has fascinated not just modern artists. Simon Javier Calasanz, a former three-time lightweight arm wrestling champion in De La Salle University, knows a little bit of its history.

“Arm wrestling has its roots way back in Greco-Roman times wherein generals would fight, at the arm wrestling table, for the honor of leading a battalion in battle,” he says. “Very similar to the datus here in the Philippines. Datus would be heads of the tribe either through intelligence or strength. And shows of strength would be done either through combat, or bunong braso.”

Calasanz participated in the mini-tournament that night (and won his match), a sort of official initiation from that time three years ago when he first watched Ben arm wrestle on television, and went over to his house to brush up on his skills. After initially losing to the arm wrestlers he sparred with, he knows now, from the very first grasp, if it’s a match that he could win or lose.

“By the way he holds your hand, by the way the finger pressure goes against the back of your hand, you could tell whether or not [your opponent] knows what he’s doing,” he says. “At that moment, you’re already thinking and strategizing.”

"Back then, the perception was, ‘pag malaki ‘yung katawan mo, it’s not normal," says Lee Soriano. "But we were able to soften the image. We wanted to show them that these guys were able to achieve a certain level of perfection."

There are a lot of muscular, 200-pound men who lose easily to men who weigh less, Calasanz observes, so the sport is not all about raw force or strength. “It’s a thinking man’s game,” he says. It’s about willpower. “There a lot of people who are on the brink of losing, but they won’t give up, because they know if they sap the strength of their opponents, they can win.”

***

Mark Luis Ben will not arm wrestle tonight. Or at least, he’s not competing in Fuerza Fest, the mini-tournament in El Guapo’s organized by Armwrestling Philippines for its enthusiasts.

Instead, he positions himself near the international-standard tournament table set up outside, asks the pullers (arm wrestlers) to assemble there, and lays down a few ground rules. The reminders take a while, and ends with Ben showing the crowd the proper way to grip and position one’s wrists and elbows during a match. Like Soriano, he emphasizes a primordial concern: safety, more than anything else.

At the end of the mini-tournament, after the winner has been announced and given the ₱5,000 prize, Ben says: “Arm wrestling is a contact sport, pero ‘di talaga kayo magkakasakitan.”

Ben, who is a registered nurse, started arm wrestling as a kid along with his older brother James, who is also active in the sport. “When I was in high school, that was the main thing to gauge your current strength, kaysa naman brawling,” he says.

When he began entering tournaments — one of them the Trust Bunong Braso Challenge, where he emerged third best in the nationals — he did not know any of the techniques yet. He was only exposed to professional arm wrestling when he went to a competition in Thailand, where he met professional arm wrestlers from Russia, Latvia, Singapore, and Malaysia, among others.

“In arm wrestling, the main purpose is not to break your wrists, so if you have strong wrists, you have a high advantage of winning,” Ben says. “When you have strong fingers, basically ma-be-bend mo 'yung wrists mo, then you can use a hook” — an arm wrestling technique — “and also a top roll.”

armwrestling4.jpg Mark Luis Ben is the vice president of Armwrestling Philippines. Photo by JL JAVIER

Contrary to popular perception, arm wrestling is not just about having big biceps, though this aids the arm wrestler. “It will help you with the back pressure. In arm wrestling, you don’t necessarily move your opponent sideways, basically you move backwards,” Ben says. “It’s like the art of pulling.”

“When you’re doing the pulling motion, ‘yung mga activated na muscles mo [are] arms, forearms, biceps, triceps, shoulders, back, and core,” he adds.

Ben knows this, as well as other ways to prepare himself better for the sport, partly because he’s also a certified trainer by the American Council of Exercise (ACE), one of the largest fitness certification organizations in the world. He blends sport science and what he knows of human anatomy to understand arm wrestling better.

He also learns from previous experience. Ben was upset when he first lost a match in Thailand, but took the time to understand why. “I felt na nadaya ako sa laban, but when you understand the technique … natalo ako kasi kulang ako ng strength, ng ganitong angle.” He also learns from opponents. “Arm wrestling is competitive, but at the end of it, you’re all friends,” he says. “We share best practices.”

"In arm wrestling, you don’t necessarily move your opponent sideways, basically you move backwards," says Mark Luis Ben. "It’s like the art of pulling."

Aside from being a poster boy for Philippine arm wrestling, Ben is also Armwrestling Philippines’ vice president. The community trains in Tiendesitas on some weekends, and is sustained by the support of sponsors who also believe in the sport. The community also welcomes women — there’s a growing group of women arm wrestlers too, says Soriano — and children are also free to learn about arm wrestling as a means to instill athletic discipline at an early age.

To train doesn’t always mean to focus on winning. More than anything, the goal is to promote health and fitness through the sport. “Lahat ng mga ‘to, kahit natatalo sila, they feel accomplished, lalo na 'pag lumakas ka,” Ben says, gesturing to the small crowd that continues to spar with each other — for fun — now that the tournament has ended.

***

The dream for Soriano, as well as for arm wrestlers like Ben and Calasanz, is for the sport to have its own national sports association. “It’s not likely to happen here because the Filipino Olympic community would only recognize it if arm wrestling becomes an Olympic sport,” says Soriano, though he remains hopeful.

In the meantime, while arm wrestling is becoming more recognized all over the world —  in the Philippines in particular, where tournaments have been steadily increasing —  Soriano says the recognition should simultaneously come with efforts to make the sport safer.

“More often than not, there would be broken arms [in unsupervised matches],” says Soriano, highlighting the need for proper training for competitors, and for well-trained referees to spot danger situations in matches.

armwrestling1-1.jpg Filipinos have arm wrestled since time immemorial, the sport’s appeal being its display not only of strength, but also of intelligence. Photo by JL JAVIER

In El Guapo’s, there were no broken bones among the 21 arm wrestlers competing in Fuerza Fest. While for every match, all eyes are on the table, there are three-minute breaks during which the pullers share tips and tricks with each other. It’s this cordial atmosphere that makes the community grow, says Soriano.

He remembers that time they held a tournament in a mall in Pangasinan, where he feared no one would show up. Yet from 10 guys, the participants ballooned to 60. Soriano was also pleasantly surprised at the robust appreciation arm wrestling received in a tournament they organized in UP Diliman, and in the booth they set up for the History Channel Conference in 2016.

In El Guapo’s itself, a few curious onlookers have taken a keen interest on the friendly sparring taking place in another table along the street. This is why Soriano and the rest of Armwrestling Philippines keep holding their tournaments in public, and are open to all kinds of people who walk in, eager to learn about an ancient sport on its way to a modern resurgence.

“You just put a table there,” he says, “and they will come.”